The response to the closure of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital since the news first broke has been one of surprise and disbelief, followed by a deep sadness over losing a business that has been an integral part of life as it is known in the Tri-State since the 1950s.
But over the last several weeks, the surprise has given way to a deepening sadness as people realize that any hope of a reprieve has passed, and the hospital will only endure in their memories.
“I hate to see it go,” Greenup County Judge-Executive Bobby Carpenter said. “And I wish they had let us know something so maybe we could have tried to buy it or get someone else to buy it. But one thing I can say for sure is we are going to miss it. We are going to miss it very badly.”
Carpenter’s thoughts are shared by many, especially in his assessment of the void the closure will leave. Many area residents have voiced concern that the closure will result in the overloading of remaining area hospitals to the point where health care might be compromised. And this concern has grown due to current conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic.
A parade of cars, including an array of first responders and people waving from their vehicles, lasted about 30 minutes on Thursday. The event included a helicopter flyover as well. Employees stood outside the doors as different people spoke amid an emotional scene.
On the last day of operations — a day moved forward from the initial projected closing date of September — the former patients and employees felt the deepest cuts. Some shared their thoughts on The Daily Independent’s Facebook page.
“I will miss them,” Sandy Clark said. “They took good care of me eight years when I had a bad surgery that went wrong. I just about died, but they never gave up on me. The nurses were so kind and the guys in the lift team were great.”
Vicki Black said she worked for Our Lady of Bellefonte for seven years.
Said Black: “I started in scheduling until they outsourced the scheduling department. Then I went to ER registration and worked until the end. Working at Bellefonte Hospital has been a very special place. The co-workers and the patients were more like family. (I) will miss everyone.”
Sheila Fraley said she was proud of her time at Bellefonte.“I served on the OLBH Foundation Board for several years and am proud of the work the foundation has accomplished, helping our communities and the hard-working staff members. I will miss having OLBH in our community.”
Former employee Carrie Romine Howell shares the sentiments about the quality of the hospital. “Despite the fact that I left several years ago, OLBH will be home to me. My heart breaks for the employees and the community.”
Rebecca Waters, of Greenup, has been an OLBH employee as an MLT (Medical Lab Technician) for the past three and a half years. Bellefonte was not the first job for the Greenup native, but she said she had hoped it would be the job from which she retired.
“They have always said that if you want to keep a job around here, you should go into the medical field,” Waters said. Under normal circumstances, that would have been true. At one time, four members of her family all worked at Bellefonte.
“I really enjoyed working here,” Waters said. “And no one would have ever dreamed the hospital would close.”
Fortunately for Waters, she has been able to secure another position locally, as has her son and one of her daughters who works at the Ironton outreach, which has been taken over by Southern Ohio Medical Center.
“And I am hearing that a lot of former employees are being able to find new jobs within driving distance,” Waters said. “But some of the employees haven’t and are being forced to relocate. It is just a really sad thing that a hospital that has been here for so long is just going away.”
Angie Munn, from Boyd County, has worked at OLBH for 20 years as a purchaser in the pharmacy.
“Everyone there is like family,” Munn said. “I have watched their kids grow up and they have watched mine grow up. I have watched young girls come to work there, get married and have babies — and I watched those kids grow up. We have all been a central part of each other’s lives.”
Munn said her work family was there for her when she needed them, such as when her father passed away, and she was there for them when they needed to deal with the passing of a family member. Saying goodbye to that family, she said, is a lot like a funeral itself. “It’s really such a hard thing, to let go.”
Munn said she did receive a severance package, which will help her as she gets another job, but that itself is still another issue to face. Any seniority she had earned at Bellefonte was lost with it. Any new job she begins will be as the “new hire,” and her hours and shifts will bear little resemblance to the one she had spent so long working for. Now, like so many others, she must begin building her work life all over again.
Tom Hodges, of Ashland, also had thoughts to share concerning the last day. Hodges has been with Bon Secours for 21 years, with several of the last years being spent working at Bellefonte when he returned to the Ashland area. Hodges worked at St. Francis in Greeneville, South Carolina, before returning home. He said that Bon Secours was known for being family- and community-oriented.
“It wasn’t just lip service,” Hodges said. “Their charity work and their corporate orientation, and their volunteerism was a real thing.”
Having no exposure to Mercy Health before the joining of that company and Bon Secours, Hodges said he isn’t sure what their policies would have been in other regions. But the policies to which he has been exposed since January of this year are quite different than what he had experienced with Bon Secours.
“Mercy seems to be more revenue-driven,” Hodges said. But even with the change in management, the expectation of himself and his fellow employees, he said, were to continue under the new policies. “But no one at Bellefonte foresaw the closure of Bellefonte Hospital.”
Hodges said his severance pay will see him through until he finds another job, but he isn’t certain what job — or where — it might be.
According to Hodges, one of the most tragic things about the situation is that Bellefonte was a hospital built, in a very real way, by the community itself.
“If you walk around the Bellefonte campus you will find these plaques everywhere,” Hodges said. “You see plaques with ‘In Memory Of …’ where a family member has donated in the memory of their loved ones. You see a lot of ‘in recognition’ plaques, too, where the hospital has recognized a particular person or group for fundraising or donations. The community built this hospital.”
And now that the community it once served is locked out, Hodges said he hopes at least that the families of the people who merited those plaques will be given the opportunity to carry them home.